Thursday, 14 February 2008

Is Writing Just a Gift?

Welcome, fellow racers, to the Friday coffee morning or Thursday night cocoa.

I drew one of the horse heads when I was nine and the larger one, just now. Well actually, I did them both now - I couldn’t find the one I did when I was nine but it doesn’t matter. My point is that they would be nearly identical.

The school I went to employed a teacher who used to be an official war artist. He didn’t have any teacher qualifications but then, as it was a private school, he didn’t need any. He was quietly bad tempered but he talked to us as if we were adults and taught us how to paint skies – the dark colours at the top and then thinning out and lightening down to the earth or sea. I thought he was wonderful and I loved his lessons. He tried to teach me how to draw a horse’s head. Take a look – not bad for a nine year old really.

Then he was replaced by a middle aged woman with a red bob and hairy legs who wanted us all to be painters. No one was to be better than anyone else. The first lesson we had to cut up potatoes, dip them in paint and make patterns. From that day I totally lost interest and have never painted or drawn again. This means that the horse’s head I did now- at 49 - is pretty rubbish. Maybe though, if I’d had more lessons with him I would have steadily improved or maybe I’d reached the limit of my artistic capabilities?

How much of the writing craft can we be taught? I feel that through books, chatting with you guys, writer’s websites and even my terrifying creative writing class, I’ve learnt a lot. What lessons have you learnt? Have you read or been told anything and thought: ‘Yes, that makes sense – that’s how or why I should do that.’? I’ve just learn about sensory writing and I intend to build on that. What about you?


K.Imaginelli said...

That's a question I've always wondered about, Fiona. I've only taken one creaative writing class and that was many years ago as an undergrad.

I think in some ways writing is like music--some people have a natural affinity for, say, the piano while others have to work a bit harder to excute the basics. However, natural affinity/talent or not, everyone needs regular practice. I think I've learned a lot from all the pages I've generated and from reading books from all sorts of genres. I just hope I'll be able to apply some of the lessons I've picked up from writing magazines, novels, etc when it comes time to revise my beast of a novel.

One thing I've learned is that each scene needs to forward the story/plot in some way (ie characters hanging out and chatting is great but it needs to go somewhere). I'll have to put that little lesson to use during the revision phase.

My greatest weakness is lack of sensory details (this first draft has lots of cliches). What helped you in that area?

liz fenwick said...

Love this topic Fiona! I also think you may have missed your calling - great horses head!

I think you can be taught the skills around writing - in fact i know you can be but I don't think you can be taught story telling itself. I think that has to come from within. I know that the game I play with dd taking five separate words and creating a story from leaves most people stranded but writers quickly build worlds around such things.

For example at the RNA conference I was given these details of a character -71 year old male, just learned how to use the internet and has a secret to keep from his wife. I then had five minutes to draft a character sketch and then I stood up and had to answer questions about him. This was brilliant and it is the nugget that has created the story for my next book.

So I think you have to be a born storyteller and the skills of telling that story better can be learned.

K. when you write to do see and feel the scene in front of you? If you do (which I do) I choose to pull certain sensory details onto the page that my character may notice - but only a few....

How's everyone doing in the race? I'm up to page 100 of my rewrite (first one that is)out of 400 so lagging behind me thinks :-)

Zinnia Cyclamen said...

I've learned an enormous amount from courses, people giving feedback on my writing, and how-to books. I think we can be taught most if not all of the writing craft if we want to learn that way. I feel as if I have loved and told stories all my life - but if I think about it, even that was taught to me, by my family. My ability to tell stories didn't enable me to create a reader-pleasing structure for a whole 80,000-word novel, I learned that from how-to books and courses and other writers. Although I totally agree with K Imaginelli that practice is also something a writer learns from.

Race: no progress, but I've drafted or made notes for five short stories in the last three weeks.

I'll be on holiday next week so I won't be doing my usual comment round or coming for coffee, back the week after.

L-Plate Author said...

Hi Guys

Hmm, Fiona you have me thinking. To a certain extent, a writer has to learn the craft. Like Liz says you have to be a born story teller but that just isn't enough. Every scene has to count and I think that is something that comes with experience and time.

What makes someone write though? I think you have to have lots of life experience, the more the better I feel, but I would say that with my age! Some of the 'youngsters' write great books too so that blows that out of the water, I suppose.

I write to escape, I love going into my characters worlds at the end of a hard day so no matter if I have the talent to be published or not, I know I'll always have to do it, maybe not so manically all the time, but more for fun.

Personally, I think talent is needed but also a hell of a lot of perseverance, optimism and sheer determination. Who would put themselves through that if they didn't think they had talent?

Nature v nurture? I think if you can listen in to gossip and make a story out of a snippet of someone's elses tale, then that is sheer talent.

Re-write is going well, done 15,000 words now. Hoping to get some chapters out to agents in at the end of the month, if I can prise them out of my hand and post them on their way! Then it's on to book three, the new one not the one I started at the beginning of the year. Oh did I say you have to be a bit of a nutter as well!

Have a good week every one x

Rowan Coleman said...

Hi everyone. GREAT topic, Fiona. I agree with all here, particularly K.Imaginelli. I run a creative writing course and one of my students is a composer, I find I spend a lot of my turning to him when we are working on a particular area, whether it be pacing, plot, capturing emotion or building a character and saying 'It must be just like writing a piece of music'

Writing is like playing an instrument. The more you do it the better you get. You can be taught the technicalities and become pretty good and perfectly accomplished. But to really fly and to really be able to take your audience with you, like Liz says, you need the story telling gene. You need a spark of something that cannot be taught.

Lucy Diamond said...

Hi everyone,

I went to a creative writing class about five years ago and definitely learned some good techniques there - basic things like the fact that every scene should move the plot forward in some way (I used to write too many dialogue-heavy scenes that didn't really go anywhere), also that leaving a scene at the earliest opportunity works - once you've achieved your aim within that scene, then get out fast - preferably with a cliffhanger dangling at the end! And I've learned to hang the plot on a series of crisis points that keep up the momentum.... lots of things really which I guess you might already know subconsciously, or at least think, "Yeah, that makes sense", but having them pointed out and studying examples of other authors' work really helped me.

Of course you need some talent to write successfully too as well as the passion and drive to sit there and actually do it, but I think there's always room to learn more!

I'm up to 56,000 words on the new novel so I'm still on course to get to 60,000 this month - half-term permitting...

PS I've never been able to draw a good horse's head - I am really impressed by yours, Fiona!

Caroline said...

I think that you can be taught to craft. Most people have stories, can tell stories, but not all can write them into a novel. I think the craft, the emotional needs (including dedication) can be acquired and taught. The MA in Creative writing taught me much about myself/my writing abilities, I also think that blogging has too.

On the race front ... I'm back from Malta and I'm off ... 1500 words ...


Flowerpot said...

I think you can learn a lot about craft but you can't learn talent. But so much is about perseverance isn't it? On hte race front - progress has been severely delayed by a lot of work on the journalism front. Still writing but not fiction! But good for the CV.

Lazy Perfectionista said...

I agree that how to improve your writing can be taught, though that isn't going to do much good if you don't have the stories to tell and the worlds to describe. But can you be taught too much? If you soak up every writing rule and opinion that you come across does that just mean your own style and voice get watered down?

As for my WIP, I've been doing more planning and consolidating this week, but am hoping to spend a large chunk of tomorrow actually getting the new scenes I have in my head into my laptop!

Graeme K Talboys said...

I think the desire to write is innate. That cannot be taught or forced on anyone.

If the desire is there, there are many things that can be done to help a person improve their writing and equip them with the means to continue exploring ways of doing that.

The better CW courses will do that, just as a good art teacher will teach techniques and help you understand why and where they work. Many CW courses are just literature courses in disguise - the equivalent of potato printing.

As for the horse - bl**dy brilliant.

Leatherdykeuk said...

I think the craft is learned. I've never taken a class and my early stories (four or five years ago) are absolute rubbish. Writing daily has refined my work to an acceptable readibility, though it improves in leaps and bound.

No progress on the WIP this week, but a few small online publishing successes.

Cathy said...

I definitely think you can be taught the basics of the craft, but the motivation, ideas and inspiration are another matter.

One of the benefits of a good creative writing course is the interaction with other writers and the considered feedback and inspiration you receive from them. I think there is, however, a danger with many of the 'how to' books, in that some writers stick too rigidly to what they see as black and white rules. Reading widely is also another great way to learn what works, albeit often subconsciously.

No work on the novel this week as I have been studying hard, in the last few weeks I have been researching and planning rather than actually writing. I need a kick to get going again.

CC Devine said...

I started writing just over two years ago and believe that practice makes perfect, well, it certainly makes you better. Just like Leatherdyke my early attempts were pretty dire but necessary to help me improve and understand what it was I was trying to do.

In the past tweleve months I have devoured as much information as possible from blogs such as this, writing books and writers' magazines etc. all of which has helped me improve my writing. I've become aware of common beginners' mistakes (all present in my first draft!), had my eyes open to helpful tips and writing tricks, been inspired by fellow novel racers' and other writers' experiences.

I think the key thing is to know what to take away from the wealth of advice and information available and what to ignore. The bottom line, I believe, is that you can teach people how to draw on their imagination and you can give them the tools to structure a story but you can't magic up the determination, observation and fascination in human nature required of a writer if, at some level, it is not already present.

ChrisH said...

I knew from an early age that I could string a sentence together and that I loved words - not being arrogant just realistic - but plot was always something I found tough until I attended Robert McKee's 'Story' seminar which helped me with the nuts and bolts. I'm not sure that writing can be taught but you can certainly learn how to refine what skills you have; I play the piano but all the lessons in the world will never make me a concert pianist!

Juliette M said...

I think it's both a gift and it's learned. I think you need a natural affinity for it, but as you progress, you improve. Like as someone said above, playing a musical instrument. There are certain instruments you may be more drawn to, or have more of an affinity with, than others. I have taken classes, and I am not sure it can be 'taught' but I think discussion groups and sharing your craft with other writers can prove a big help.

JJ said...

I guess most of it has been said above, so yes I think that it's possible to learn parts and tweak bits, but that ability or talent definitely comes into it too.

I didn't come to coffee last week because I was feeling fed up with my lack of progress. I still feel a bit like that this week, but I'm here anyway, trying to turn it around...


Kate.Kingsley said...

Great topic, Fiona. And those horses heads are indeed a thing of beauty! ( I can’t draw a circle, so I am in total awe of anyone who can draw).

I wonder/worry about how much of being a writer can be taught (and maybe that’s because I still have a LOT to learn!). Is the huge rise in creative writing courses a good thing, or have people latched on to the idea that there are a lot of budding, yet nervous authors out there who they can make a buck out of? Not criticising courses, or those who take them, btw ~ I’ve taken about a billion of them (and that is an actual statistic ;-) ) But then again, although I feel that I am improving I don’t know if this is through the courses and “how to” books that I’ve consulted, or just a natural by-product of practice and greater experience. And I think I agree with Liz, Rowan and everyone else who has said there’s a spark of something that has to be there ~ a writer sees a dropped glove on the pavement and immediately starts wondering who dropped it, and why (were they in a hurry? Are they just a careless person?) and then constructs an entire backstory and potential plot by the time they’re at the bus stop. The non-creator just sees a lost glove. So maybe that aspect of it is innate. Ten years of tennis lessons might mean that I had a great grasp of the whys and hows of the game, and I’d have a few good shots, but I would never have that special something that makes a grand slam champion. So, err, I appear to have talked myself right onto the fence in the nature/nurture debate……

As far as the race goes, I am really pleased with how I’m doing at the min ~ really focussed, and I’m making a lot of progress. Can’t quantify exactly how much, as I’m writing up longhand at the mo, as I’ve discovered that this is far more creative for me for a first draft, then I can edit as I type up. And I’ve stopped number-crunching too, as I decided this was making me feel anxious as I’m naturally quite a slow worker, I think. So I have no idea where I’m at numerically, but I like the process very much at the moment.


I used to supect that you are either a good story teller or not BUT there are so many things we think we cant do that perhaps the l=only mimit to what we can learn is self imposed? Being a good observer helps a great deal but that in itself may be something that one can learn, perhasp it is more a case of having to practise the skills to hone them rather them learnign them from scratch?

B.E. Sanderson said...

All through school I was told I was a good writer. My papers all had As and my 10th grade English teacher told me I should get my work published. My first college English professor left notes on my papers that glowed with praise. When I got to College Composition 201, my professor was an ex-marine (US military) who basically told me my writing sucked, but that I had potential if I was willing to work for it and proceeded to make me work for every grade on every paper I wrote. He was the only one who didn't feed me a line of BS just to keep me happy, and the only one who really helped me improve my craft. I will be eternally grateful to the man. I learned last year that he had a massive stroke and passed on, but he'll live forever in my work - if only for the fact that I can still hear his voice telling me that even when I stink, I can always improve.

Lane said...

Sorry to be late and thanks Fiona for a great topic.
There have been some fascinating comments and I agree with the general consensus that a writer has to have a spark of natural flair, whether it be in story telling/creating characters/evoking scenes. If the spark is there, the craft can learnt.

I've recently taken some books apart in an effort to learn how to keep up the momemtum of story. It's been a lesson in learning not to sink into self indulgence and to pace with 'peaks' and 'troughs'.

Your horse drawing has a 'spark' Fiona. Maybe you should sign up to art classes as well:-)

A. Writer said...

Well, I haven't taken any creative writing courses and I don't feel like I've missed out on anything.

I've learnt stuff as I go via books and talking to other writers. I think that's the best way of learning the craft. I hated school and the whole sitting down to learn routine. To actually write and get practical help along the way is good.

I think everyone has different ways of doing it. Part of me would like to experience a writing course but then again I think, maybe not.

I did do some journalism training so that has helped the old spelling and grammar a bit so I do find the benefits there.

Loved the horses heads!

Debs said...

Great post, Fiona and I love the horses heads. I'm hopeless at drawing anything.

I've read a few 'how to' books and feel that they help with certain aspects of writing and believe that practice certainly helps to improve how well a story is put down on to the page. I think that interraction with other writers, websites etc have helped point me in the right direction too.

I think that, for me at least, the best way forward is simply to get the story down on paper first and then put into practice all that I've gleaned from books etc when redrafting it to bring it from something in my head to something that (hopefully) someone else may want to read.

CTaylor said...

Oh Gosh. I'm REALLY late to coffee morning this week. Sorry but I've been up to my eyes in paint (almost literally, it's got EVERYWHERE!) and have been neglecting my internet duties.

I agree with most of what's been there. I think a wannabe writer has to have a spark of talent to begin with but that spark can be polished and refined through learning. I haven't attending any courses but I've read a lot of How To books and have also learnt a lot from various online writing communities. I've also done the same a Lane recently and dissected published authors book to see how they achieve that page-turning quality.

I also think practise makes a huge difference. Like Leather my short stories from a few years ago are dire and I've learnt a lot by having them critiqued by other writers then writing a new story. Am hoping I won't have to go through the same process with novel writing or I'll have to write at least ten novels before I get one published! That said I know that when I go back to novel #2 I'll have lots of new skills acquired from rewriting novel #1 and working out what works and what doesn't and why.

Not much progress on the rewrite this week (due to aforementioned redecorating) but did do 2.2% tonight so it's now 35% completed. Step by step, I'll get there.

Sean McManus said...

I'd recommend the book 'Writing Tools' by Roy Peter Clarke because it takes proficient writers and introduces them to techniques for improving. Once you've learned to delete dead wood and structure work properly, there's not many other places to go in terms of guided tuition. This is one of them.

The most important lesson I learned when writing my novel last year is that writing is all about thinking. Writers' block is just a lack of ideas. Once I'd cracked that, I could work on the book wherever I went, and whenever I sat down to write at the computer, I already had ideas stacked up and ready for me to bring in to land.